By Daniel Neely
Since covid hit, we’ve experienced a couple of ebb and flow periods with regard to new releases in the world of traditional music. Things seemed to surge last fall after an ebb period in late spring/early summer, but this summer we seem to be going through yet another moment of stagnation. I’ve heard of no recent releases, and while it’s likely that I’m just ignorant of what’s out there at the moment, I’m hoping for the flow to return soon!
Speaking of flow: as I was probing around for something to listen to for this week’s column, I was messaging with an old friend from graduate school now at USC, who at the same time was messaging with a colleague at the University of Limerick. This chain of communication hipped me to the existence of Strange Boy, a hip hop artist I’d not heard of, but who drew on the sounds of traditional music in his most recent release, “Holy/Unholy.” Moments later, I was stuck in.
Strange Boy’s an intriguing character. The Limerick emcee’s press material relates that “[he] is a 1,000-year-old poet channelling through the body of a young man from Limerick. With hard-hitting, thought-provoking lyrics, Strange Boy’s unique mastery of flow renders him one of the most important rappers of our time.”
They’re bold, imaginative claims, and yet not far off. Strange Boy (who was formerly known as Jonen Dekay) spins verses about hardship and conflict, tied into the occasional edge of mythic imagery, that paint a bracing picture of contemporary Ireland. In them, we hear about a lack of hope, amusement, promise, and direction. We hear of quiet (and maybe not-so-quiet) desperation. And in it, these themes becomes familiar and almost sympathetic, helping us to understand flaws and hardships that listeners on the outside can begin to better understand.
Strange Boy is able to do this because he possesses a measure of wisdom that works against the very desperation of which he speaks. His expression is impassioned and forthright, two things I think are helped by the traditional music trappings in which the music is nested. In the album’s plaintive arrangements (created by Enda Gallery, formerly known as “delush”), I hear flute, five string banjo, bodhrán, harp, and spoons (the great Moya Brennan even makes an appearance on the album’s opening track), all of which are used in a way that evokes the more lonesome feelings associated with the music. (Interestingly, this approach was given a trial run with “The Pope,” a more recent single not included on this album.)
The overall effect is impressionistic and it works very well, adding depth to the storytelling that probably wouldn’t hit as squarely had it depended upon a more beat-oriented approach, like earlier tracks of his including “String Theory” and “Cold Mornings,” a track the Rubberbandit Blind Boy described as “probably [his] fave Irish hip hop tune.”
“Holy/Unholy” is an album with realistic immediacy. It is rather unromantic in its approach, depicting a harsh, unforgiving Ireland that I think will prove hard for parts of the diaspora to fully comprehend, and perhaps to even accept. But those with a sympathetic ear and those who are open to why the use of traditional instrumentation is relevant to this storytelling will be immediately drawn into the artistry – it is a major part of what makes the album interesting. Visit wttnw.de/artists/strange-boy to learn more about Strange Boy. To see the full range of your “Holy/Unholy” downloading/streaming options, visit found.ee/HolyUnholy. Also see on YouTube here and here.
As I close, the hip hop/traditional crossover here reminds of a bit of comedy that seems relevant. Are any readers fans of the “Hardy Bucks?” If so, you probably remember the one where Buzz goes to Lady Bird’s book club at the library and encounters the rap / sean-nós crossover called “hyp-nós.” Well, how many of you know that the bearded singer in that scene was the brilliant Paddy Joe Tighe from County Mayo? Shout out to Paddy Joe, who I hope is doing well. To see him in less experimental form, check out tinyurl.com/PaddyJoe, it’s excellent.